Should you let people scrape data from your site or offer a web service API instead? This is one of the classic arguments for offering an API: to get better control over how your data is accessed and who gets that access. A recent news story about Flybe, Europe's largest independent regional airline carrier, demonstrates a case where this was the main driver for creating an API. For Flybe, having third party service and applications access their booking engine is very important to them, but they want to make it more structured and reliable. As Stephen Hobday, Flybe’s Head of Sales describes:
"By taking seats directly from our website, online agencies provide a valued revenue stream at minimal distribution cost. As technology continues to evolve, it will be inevitable that demand from web-based platforms such as those used by flight aggregators, dot coms and providers of travel agent and corporate booking tools, will increase. To make the process more robust and appropriate to the expectations of our partners, Flybe are in the latter stages of developing and testing Web Services allowing online agents to connect to its API (Application Programming Interface). By providing a direct feed from our inventory to the online retailer there will be significant benefit to both the customer and the airline.”
Mr. Hobday describes some of the issues inherent in the screen-scraping model:
Mr Hobday goes on to explain that the current method of ‘screen-scraping’, whereby the customer extracts information from Flybe’s website, has the limitation of not being able to automatically identify any enhancements that the airline makes to the booking process. “This can create varying amounts of ‘down time’ whilst both parties re-define code to reflect the changes,” he adds.
“This can result in a loss of revenue all round and an associated resource cost. However, with Web Services, the online agency will be connected to our outgoing feed so will no longer need to go via our website and will benefit from all of Flybe's product development.
“Undoubtedly, as volume increases from Screen Scrapers, particularly during peak periods or when our schedules launch, there is the potential that the speed of our public website may be affected.
In the end he describes this as a business development strategy: “In the online environment, Web Services is becoming the de-facto messaging standard. The onus is on us to integrate this in to our strategy and continue to work with our partners in what can only be viewed as a win-win situation for everyone.”
This is likely to be an argument heard more frequently in the coming months and years as open APIs become a commonly accepted means for partners doing business online.